By Katy Trimble
George Frideric Handel, a musical titan of the Baroque Era, produced 25 oratorios during his lifetime. Messiah is his most famous and, arguably, the most famous oratorio ever.
Handel’s Messiah follows the story of Jesus Christ: Part One prophesies the birth of Jesus; Part Two exalts his sacrifice for humankind; Part Three heralds his Resurrection.
The second part of the piece contains the iconic, ”Hallelujah Chorus,” derived from a section of the Book of Revelation, and is among the most famous pieces of Baroque choral music.
“The feelings of joy you get when you hear the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ are second to none,” said Laurence Cummings, SLSO guest conductor and current Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music.
Cummings will conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Chorus, and a cast of vocalists in this beloved music December 2-4 at Powell Hall.
The original Easter offering gained immense popularity, eventually becoming one of Western music's most well-known and frequently performed choral pieces. Messiah, now a musical rite to the Christmas season, continues to awe listeners after almost three centuries.
While most people recognize the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the entire oratorio is filled with moving musical moments. St. Louis Symphony Chorus members and former Chorus leaders share their favorite moments from the piece and past performances.
Get your tickets to the December 2-4 concerts here.
Patty Kofron, alto
“I love singing Messiah, and I especially love singing the coloratura.* Although there are many special moments in Messiah, I think the most poignant are juxtaposed between the abject brutality of the mob in ‘He Trusted in God’ and the beauty and inspiration of the trumpet solo in ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound.’”
*Coloratura is an elaborate musical passage with runs, trills, and leaps, most often heard in soprano operatic roles.
Bill Larson, tenor
“One of the choral highlights without fail is the opening of ‘Since by Man.’ This is one of the truly few a cappella moments in the entire work and is so different in style from the other choral movements. It hearkens back to an antique style with slow moving chord progressions and is typically sung non-vibrato. When the tuning is flawless, it will leave me with a chill down my spine. It's a movement I look forward to singing every performance.”
Pam Triplett, soprano
“One of the most dramatic and moving parts of Messiah for me is the sequence where Jesus is rejected by the crowd. The tenor sings ‘they shoot out their lips, saying:’ and the chorus (crowd) sings a stinging fugue ‘He Trusted in God that he would deliver him, let him deliver him, if he delight in him’ with such cruelty. At the end, the tenor comes back in with ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart.’ It brings me to tears every time.”
Terree Rowbottom, alto
“After singing Messiah for so many years, what I enjoy is the way the piece comes alive in different ways under different conductors. The same piece sung with different phrasing and inflections breathes new life into each set of performances.”
Laurel Dantas, soprano
“The Messiah has numerous references to sheep and lambs. I grew up on a sheep farm, and memories of the lambs drifting around the fields, bouncing and careening off of each other, is the perfect mental picture for the swirling energy of the faster movements. It always puts a smile on my face and that extra spring in my voice.”
Dan Brodsky, tenor
“In 43 seasons of singing with the Chorus, I've sung in many memorable performances of Messiah, but none more special than the 1983 performances conducted by none other than Christopher Hogwood. There were less than 30 of us in the Chorus for those performances—what a thrill that was! Our four soloists were the angelic Emma Kirkby; Carolyn Watkinson; Ian Partridge; and stentorian bass David Thomas singing ’The Trumpet Shall Sound’ in Handel's stilted English version. I will hold those performances in my head and in my heart for the rest of my life.”
Duane Olson, tenor
“The chorus, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray,’ begins in a major key with charming, whimsical music. Different chorus parts twist and turn like dumb sheep who bump into each other and run off lost into the woods. The stunning transition comes in the last 16 bars where reflective music begins with an instantaneous move to a minor key and tense harmonies. The chorus concludes, ‘And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ ‘Wake up,’ Handel says. This is not about silly animals but human culpability.”
Susan Patterson, retired Chorus Manager
“One of my favorite memories from performances of Messiah was during the 2003 performance with Itzak Perlman conducting. Bass Kevin Deas, standing in the soloist position, turned his back to the audience to listen while [former Principal Trumpet] Susan Slaughter played the trumpet solo in ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound.’ It truly made the work a duet!”
Amy Kaiser, retired Chorus Director
“‘His yoke is easy and his burthen is light’: after many pages of coloratura fugues, Handel settles on the perfect character of ‘easy’ and ‘light’, with a cadence that is unified, gracious, and transparent. The double meaning of ‘light’ is perfectly expressed at the conclusion of Part One.”
Mark Scharff, tenor
“My favorite spot in Messiah is the opening of ‘And the glory of the Lord.’ The triple meter (swirling with fast-tempo conductors, stately minuet old-school) sets the stage for the choral experience of the entire piece, and makes the Christmas story one told communally, not just by soloists or instruments.”
Patrick Mattia, tenor
“My all-time favorite moment of Messiah occurs in the final movement, ‘Worthy is the Lamb.’ The middle of this movement is a festive fugue on the text ‘Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the lamb forever and ever.’ At the very end of this fugue, the upper three voices have been repeating this phrase as if there was no end, and finally, the basses and tenors declare it for the last time in unison. For me, this is the climax of the entire Messiah—the point at which all is laid bare. My Christian faith tells me that all things point to Christ and that he is the beginning and end point of all creation, and to me, this moment is that theological idea put into music--the Alpha and Omega. I believe Handel saw it that way too.”